I came to rope rescue with a very modest rock-climbing background. I had a limited kit, which perfectly matched my limited skill set.
When I joined the Sweeny (Texas) Complex Rescue team, I was in awe of the sheer volume of equipment available to me. Giant EVAC bags stuffed with every widget known to man littered our rescue bay. I was in heaven. Until, that is, as the new guy I had to schlep those heavy suckers up and down stairs all day.
If not for IRECA (International Rescue & Emergency Care Association), I fear nothing would have changed no matter how far I was promoted through the ranks. How many of you have heard, "This is just how we do it"? We lived by it! In fairness, nothing I had seen up to our first year of competition had proven any different.
No matter the school, team or geographic location, everyone had giant loadouts, and by God, some used every bit of it, each time. It's just how it was done. My minimalist climbing approach should have sent up some red flags, but it was born more out of economics than sensibility. Even so, I followed right along in lock step.
Then, a better way presented itself. In 2015, the IRECA competition was being held in our own backyard — Houston. A few members of our team had competed years before, so we signed up. To say that our first year back was an absolute mess is an understatement. The rules were virtually unchanged from years past, but our team had not bought into the "IRECA way."
By that time, I was the equipment officer. When handed the official gear list, I thought it was a joke (see sidebar). How is a four- or seven-member team going to successfully complete complex timed rescue scenarios with so little gear? Short answer: Uncomplicate the complicated.
We soon learned this was easier said than done. Our solid last place finish proved that in spades. We had been doing it the other way around for so long we could not get out of our own way. But mediocrity would not last.
In 2016, we came in a respectable fifth place. In 2017 and 2018, we were reserve world champions. And 2019 brought yet another podium finish in what would end up being the closest competition in the history of IRECA. With thousands of points available, 28 points separated first and third. Here's how we did it.
Doing More with Less
At its core, rope rescue done right is nothing more than economy of movement. Getting to your patient quickly, applying medical interventions efficiently, then reusing those pieces already deployed for extraction. That is how you beat the "golden hour."
Learning to do more with less is the bedrock of that philosophy. There are several ancillary benefits as well. In my case, much of our gear was reaching expiration within the next three years. The IRECA competition convinced us that we did not need a giant portion of what we had in our inventory. By freeing up those dollars, my leadership was able to shift that portion of the budget to training.
Our team hovers in the 20-member range, give or take. Our IRECA team consists of two judges, one alternate and seven competitors for a total of 10 members. Just like the main team, our competition team has seen various members come and go over the last five years. Still, it has had little effect on our positive results.
By implementing a robust training schedule, we have created 10 subject matter experts who, in turn, download that knowledge with a 1:1 ratio into the remaining members of the larger team. Are you starting to see the value? We are.
Nothing makes me prouder than the feedback I'm getting from outside schools. It is a fact that, on average, my people are better trained and prepared than their classmates. We are also doing it under budget. Our simple loadout, taught to be used in myriad of ways through one-on-one mentorship, is creating solid rescue technicians and doing it in a hurry.
As I mentioned before, in year three we finished second. Our secondary medic that year was a front-office employee, who, two years prior, had never been on a rope. Year four, we competed with a rigger who had one year of experience when our training cycle started, and we still repeated as reserve world champions.
Last year, due to attrition, five of the seven members moved to completely new roles and we still finished on the podium with yet another new member.
Enough about trophies. It was never about that anyway. I manage an all-volunteer team comprised of process operators and chemical engineers who have many responsibilities beyond first response.
I must do it within a budget while often understaffed. It's imperative that I get the most out of every dollar while keeping time away from careers to a minimum.
A Special Forces officer once told me, "Don't confuse training with execution. Training is preparation; execution is experience. There's a world of difference between the two." Without a doubt, IRECA has created an environment by which to close that gap. I am forever sold.
Chris Williams holds ProBoard certification in Rope 1, Rope 2, and confined space rescue. He has served as an adjunct rescue instructor at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and as a corporate instructor for the Illinois Fire Institute. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Williams has 20 years' experience in rock climbing and 10 years' experience with the Chevron Phillips rescue team.